The NFL Is Full Of Unpleasant Men Trying To Screw Each Other
11:26 AM EDT on July 12, 2023
The first thing you need to do is to go read Don Van Natta Jr. and Seth Wickersham go deep on the leak of Jon Gruden's racist and homophobic emails, and the possible involvement of Dan Snyder, and how whether or not Snyder was responsible for the leak, it ended up being the straw that broke the camel's back in a forced sale of the Commanders. It's corporate soap opera at its most petty and deranged.
There was actually some dispute in Defector Slack about how satisfying the investigation is, given that it doesn't give a definitive answer—though it strongly hints, in places—to which party or parties was behind the multiple leaks, which led to Gruden's forced resignation as Raiders coach. But to me, the ambiguity is delicious: it makes the story read like a whodunnit, wall-to-wall with anecdotes that illustrate how each of the suspects had means and motive, like the world's most distasteful game of Clue. Was it the league office, nursing a long-held grudge against Gruden and seeing its opportunity to be rid of him while also appearing tough on racism? Was it NFLPA head De Smith, looking to swing a close election and keep his job? Or was it Snyder, operating through his notoriously ruthless law firm and the CEO of Roc Nation, looking to distract from his own scandals or to take down everyone he could with him?
Again, the uncertainty here really does it for me, because the story that emerges is one where everyone is a suspect, which gets at a larger, juicier truth: Everyone in and around the NFL seems to hate each other's guts.
Snyder had at first appeared to survive Beth Wilkinson's outside investigation of his longtime conduct as owner by weaponizing what he knew. The story tells of a meeting between Snyder's legal team and NFL executives:
When Snyder's lawyers -- famed defense attorney Joe Tacopina, assisted by Reed Smith partners Siev and James McCarroll -- began to show a series of slides, those in the room were stunned, according to sources. What was presented was not a defense against any of Wilkinson's findings made against Snyder; it was a series of screenshots of potentially embarrassing emails and texts from several top league executives, including Goodell's top lieutenant, Pash. The rationale, according to a source with firsthand knowledge, was to argue the hypocrisy of league officials judging Snyder. The tactics were so ruthless that some attorneys felt uncomfortable. Although none of the content was sexist, anti-gay or graphic, the signal was clear: If Goodell didn't do what Snyder wanted in terms of handling the Wilkinson report and punishment, these emails and texts would be leaked.
It became known in league circles as the "Blackmail PowerPoint."
It appears to have worked, at least temporarily. After that, Snyder was "dictating his punishment," according to one source in this story. It resulted in the weird suspension/non-suspension handed down in summer 2021 that saw Snyder ostensibly barred from running the team, but still attending every game. The league praised Snyder for having "recognized the need for change" and "undertaken important steps," though it didn't say what those might be, and in fact kept the result of Wilkinson's investigation under wraps. But buried in Wilkinson's findings were thousands of pages of emails, including Gruden's offending ones, which were turned over to the league and to Snyder's camp.
Who leaked them? Jon Gruden has some ideas. The story paints the picture of a paranoid man convinced the NFL was out to get him and the Raiders, and in fact has been since Al Davis first sued the league in 1980. Gruden bristled over the Tuck Rule call, and smaller slights, like once being admonished for speaking against an unnecessary-roughness call.
Gruden later told friends he felt that Goodell was treating him like a "stooge" who had "never coached in the league, like I don't study football day in and day out ... like I didn't know a damn thing about player safety."
Gruden never went to the league office for that meeting. The only time he ever met Goodell was years later, when he went to the league office to promote youth football, one of Gruden's passions. He expected to sit down with Goodell and plan a way to increase participation rates. Instead, Gruden met with an assistant of the commissioner. At the end of the session, Goodell entered a conference room, thanked Gruden for coming and left. Gruden fumed; after that brief meeting, Gruden never spoke again with Goodell.
Gruden also felt the league was targeting him when it hit the Raiders with penalties for multiple violations of COVID-19 protocols:
(Davis offered to pay Gruden's $150,000 fine, but league officials insisted Gruden pay it personally, which he did.) Livid, Gruden appealed the fines but ended up writing the checks. After he did, his friend Sean Payton, then the Saints' coach and who also had been fined for COVID-19 violations, called him and laughed.
"I never paid the fine," Payton told Gruden, adding that other coaches also refused to pay. "You're the only dumbfuck that paid the fine."
But Gruden also obsessed over whether he had made an enemy out of Dan Snyder, who would appear to have had the strongest motive to leak the emails.
Gruden recently wondered aloud to associates why Dan Snyder would have had it out for him. He knew that Snyder hated Bruce Allen; Snyder had fired Allen "for cause" in 2019, and the two were fighting over whether Snyder needed to pay the remainder of Allen's contract, sources said. And Gruden knew his brother Jay had shared some unsavory stories earlier in 2021 about working for Snyder, including telling the Post that the owner would "come in off his yacht" and pick players on the first day of the draft and override his coaches, scouts, everyone. Gruden thought back to an exchange with Snyder years earlier, when he had bumped into Snyder at a restaurant. Gruden believed Snyder was drunk, and he and Gruden started playfully trash-talking, with Snyder calling Gruden fat and Gruden saying he might "dribble his head into the asphalt." Both men laughed, but Gruden wondered if Snyder had taken offense.
This tracks as a microcosm of the NFL portrayed in this story: a bunch of ruddy, plump, wealthy men, quasi-jokingly jousting for dominance in public and constantly scheming to absolutely fucking ruin each other behind the scenes. May they get everything they deserve.
Go read the story. I didn't even aggregate the best anecdotes.